Being a Better Writer: Digging Deeper With Characters

Yes! Being a Better Writer has returned to Monday!

Honestly, I think I just got lucky this week in not being called into work today, but even so, it feels good to be working on BaBW on a Monday again! This is the day when it’s supposed to go down … Well, up, technically.

Today is also the first day we’ll be going off of Topic List IX! That’s right, new list, new topics!

Which brings us to today’s topic of choice: digging deeper with characters!

This is a topic I actually only added to the list recently, in light of some of my own reading experiences. You see, about a week ago I stumbled across a short story and blitzed through it, only to end up thoroughly nonplussed.

I’ll be frank. It wasn’t a very well written story. The dialogue was poor, the grammar even less impressive, the pacing nonexistent, tell instead of show everywhere, etc, etc. It was clearly someone’s first or second work … more likely the former. So lots of issues, both little and large. That’s just how a first work goes, though.

Anyway, the issue that stood out most to me, however, was the one around which the “crux” of the story itself resolved. The story was centered around two characters, one trying to get to know some secrets about the other in order to be less “alone” (essentially). But … it completely fell flat. And since this was the purpose of the story (these two characters interacting), everything else that was wrong with the work sort of fell by the wayside in the path of this largest omission. Sure, there were pacing problems, grammar issues, etc, but the core that the story wanted to deliver, nay, promised to deliver, that of a character-driven piece, was completely whiffed.

Why? Simple: It didn’t give its characters any narrative depth or weight. They were simply … pieces, for lack of a better word. Static markers being moved along a timeline. They reacted and they moved, but only in the same way that a game piece moves and reacts. They may have taken a position or “moved” from place to place, but they were still essentially markers for “Character A” and “Character B,” with little nuance or action outside of that.

Part of this was definitely a “Show VS Tell” problem that threw the scale so far towards tell that it might as well have been glued there the entire story (and yes, I’m linking that article on the subject so that you can go read it). Part of the “characters being game pieces” feel definitely came about by the story telling the reader everything about them. It was a bit like an old text-based RPG, in which a portrait of a character would move forward, and then text would inform the reader what had happened.

Yeah, definite flaw, there.

But the other part of this feel simply came because none of the characters were allowed any depth. Or rather, they weren’t given any. Like I said, they were pieces.

Again, this was highly enhanced by the show VS tell problems, but the simple fact of that matter was that this story didn’t allow any of the characters breathing room to be themselves, or better yet, let the reader get to know them. It was like … being shown a river, but the surface was frozen over with ice and covered with snow. Walking over it (reading through it), you came away with the impression that there was something larger just under the surface, but you couldn’t really see it, just the hints that it was there. Ice and snow blocked the reader’s view, preventing them from ever seeing the depths the characters had.

And we don’t want this in our stories. Not in the slightest. We want to give the characters we write depth. And the more of it—especially in a character-driven piece that relies on it—the better.

So then, onto the crux of today’s piece: How do we do that? We’ve sat down and designed a character, now how do we give them depth? I’ll even do you one better: why would you want to do that?

There’s actually a good reason for the why: A character that has depth carries narrative weight within the story. I don’t mean as physical weight, but as … well, a sort of momentum.

Picture that concept of a character as a river again. Rivers are powerful forces of nature, right? Give it a few feet of depth, and the force it has can wash away a car.

Now dam it up or redirect it. This takes effort, and can produce a stunning result.

The same is true of our characters. If our character is essentially a stream, a wide but shallow river of only a few inches depth, then redirecting them isn’t difficult, but also doesn’t carry much in the way of consequence. Sands, if they’re shallow enough, you can redirect them with a properly laid garden hose. Dropping a narrative “rock” into them will produce a slight splat but little more.

Now try the same with a river of a few feet’s depth. Suddenly the act of redirecting it or shaping its flow becomes much more difficult. There’s a lot of force to redirect. Likewise, the act of dropping a stone into it will produce a much more satisfying ka-lunk sound with an accompanying splash.

In other words, when the character’s “river” is deeper and more developed, everything they do carries more weight in the narrative, and that weight is imparted to the reader.

Make sense now? When you give a character depth, their actions, and the actions of those around them, take on weight in the story. Narrative weight that gives said actions meaning. Meaning that will stick with the reader and impact them. And that is something we all strive to have with our characters and our works.

Okay, so we’ve got the why down. Now the more vital (for many) question: How? As in, how does one go about giving their characters this depth? And, for added difficulty, let’s assume you’ve already made a detailed character design and are looking for ways to work this into the story.

Earlier I touched on pacing. Well, now I’m going to expand on that a little: you’re going to want to give your character the space to carry a little depth and weight first.

Think back to that river example. Changing the course of a river takes time and effort, right? Well, as it does in the real world, it should take a little time in your story.

In other words, don’t be afraid to space out your story beats a little so that the reader has time to both get used to or attach meaning to the character they are following, all the better to read them, learn about them, and most importantly, see the changes each new development brings.

Now, a minor note here: One should keep in mind the length of their story when accounting for these narrative beats. If you’re writing a 200,000 word epic, for example, you can think little of spending a thousand words on a character musing over current developments. In a short story of just a few thousand words, however, you don’t have that luxury, and you’ll need to tailor your pacing accordingly, which means making as much as you can out of as little as possible.

So, for starters, we need to make sure we pace our character’s interactions properly. That was part of the problem with the story I read that kicked this whole post off—it didn’t give the characters any time to discuss anything, think about anything, or even let anything sink in. It was simply “beat, beat, beat, beat, done.”

Of course, pacing still won’t fix everything. We still need to give those characters the depth they need to have both the beats and the low points in-between carry weight.

So, how do we do this? First, we need to let them show their personality, thoughts, and ideas (see, show vs tell again). We don’t just want to tell our reader what a character is thinking or feeling, we want to show it.

Showing can take a lot of ways. Recall the old “actions speak louder than words” saying? Consider that, and then how you can combine it with a character’s thoughts to give a scene narrative weight. In fact, let’s look at an example. Let’s do a scene two ways, first telling, then with the kind of showing I was talking about.

So, first one, telling.

Wick was angry. She stomped to her room, upset. She was mad because once again Valix had stolen her sale. So mad she could scream. She sat down in her chair, fuming. Revenge was needed.

“I’ll have to get back at him,” she said, angrily.

Ugh. That almost physically hurt to type. Also, it was really hard to write wrong after spending so much time writing properly. Anyway, now let’s look at some show and see what the difference is.

The walls to Wick’s quarters rattled as she slammed the door shut behind her. Sages take that Valix, she thought as she dropped into her seat. The wood let out an alarmed creak as her weight hit it all at once. That’s three sales of mine he’s stolen today! She clenched her fingers against the wooden armrests, small strips of veneer peeling back and poking the underside of her nails.

She didn’t care. The damage was inconsequential, the chair irrelevant. What mattered was Valix, and how she was going to make him pay for his thefts.

A little rough, but how much better was that? It filled a little more space, yes (though that could be trimmed down in revisions), but how much more did it tell us about the character? How much more depth did it give us?

Quite a bit. We had a reference to some sort of figures used as a curse (sages). We were shown Wick’s anger through her actions and dialogue, rather than just being told she was angry in text. And with that showing, we saw more of her personality as well, like her disregard for the damage she was causing to her own possessions. Also, that woman has some scary, claw-like nails.

One could go further (again, keep in mind what I wrote about keeping the size of your story in mind). But even right there, how did the narrative “weight” of the second piece feel compared to the first?

It felt more meaningful, didn’t it? And that’s because it gives the character more depth (and the setting too, but we’re focused on the first one).

So, if you want to give your characters more depth, let them take actions to show that depth when possible. Note, however, that these actions don’t have to be physical actions. In other words, you don’t need your character to always be expressing anger by slamming doors. They can be sullen or non-communicative. Speak tersely. Any number of things.

And you can have them display this kind of depth for any emotion, or any scene, that needs to carry an impact.

Again, don’t forget your pacing. For a sharp bend in a river to have an impact, we need to consider that we haven’t had eight bends right before it. Pacing matters, especially if we want our characters to seem real. Too much time spent on a character’s thoughts and experiences can make the story lag, too little can make the character feel impartial, or meaningless.

Is finding the right balance tricky? Of course it is. Like most things in writing, getting the balance of depth to story right is a careful act of concentration, and one without any sort of silver bullet that solves the issue for you.Experience and practice will tell you what you and your audience have to expect and work with.

All right, one other thing. Well, almost two things, but they’re interconnected, so …

Looking back at that story that I read, one of the other problems with its character depth was that it never established the characters. Or rather, it never let them show the reader who they were. It was simply “This is Character X, who does this. This is character Y, who instead does this.”

Yes, again, this is a problem of telling rather than showing, but even then there wasn’t much of that, and we move into the pacing part of things. This author seemed scared to give the reader the rests in-between the beats in order to flesh things out. Grade-school wisdom says “Well, those rest periods are dead points in the story that I need to remove, right?” and so they’re cut.

Well, grade-school wisdom is wrong. The early “rests,” so to speak, not only allow a reader to relax, but also give them the chance to learn not just about a character, but see them react in another situation or moment.

Basically, an issue the story had (and I touched on this earlier) was that it didn’t give the characters time to establish themselves, and then didn’t trust them later to grow within those established characters or react to events within the story. And it should have.

So, what do we take away from this? We need to establish the depth, width, and direction our “rivers” are traveling in early on, so that our reader has a reference point. Let the character’s depths show. Then, later, as things change over the course of the story, or events develop, we need to give our story the proper moments for our characters to react to said changes and developments, for our reader to see how what has happened affects them.

In other words, we establish the depth, width, and direction of our “river” first, then change that course later and let the reader observe the roiling waters that result.

Right, so let’s bring it all back in and summarize here. Characters should be like rivers, having depth to them and carrying narrative weight enough that each change of course (read, even in story) imparts the force and weight of that change to the reader. To make this work properly, we must pay close attention to the pacing of our story, both the beats and the rest periods. We also need to allow our characters to show their emotions, thoughts, actions, and reactions to the reader, rather than simply telling the reader about them.

Lastly, we need to make sure we establish these characters in the first place so that later, we can more fully explore reactions to narrative events.

In doing this, we allow our characters to more fully live in their own spheres, and also show our reader more fully the impact events have on their lives. This in turn gives them greater depth, realism, and character that our reader can resonate with. And that in turn?

Well, it gives us a better story.

So, give your characters more depth. Bring them to life.

Good luck. Now get writing.


One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Digging Deeper With Characters

  1. This actually reminds me of Doug Walker’s review of “The Last Airbender.” He wentered to great detail to explain how the characters feel like pieces on a chessboard, just moving strategically from plot point to plot point and responding to it rather than actually developing the characters. And I agree with both assessments. What the character’s thinks and feels are just as important as what the character does. I wish more writers knew that.

    I was wondering something that I like to hear your thoughts about. You talked about depth in this artical, but what about complexity? Using you analogy on rivers, if depth is deeping the river, than complexity is the diverging paths that comes before a specific point in the character’s development, and the possible paths that the characters/writer will chose after and how that reflects on the character.

    I guess for my question, is there a difference between a deep character and a complex character? Are there similarities? How can we tell the difference between the two when reading or writing? How do we make a character more complex? And finally, which do you feel is more important or, at least, which do you start with first when making and developing a character?

    Anyways, this a great artical and reference. Thank you.


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